Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Tokyo Diary - Part I

The Kansai had been quite a wholesome experience - Kyoto and Nara were an amazing excursion into ancient Japan, replete with the cultures and traditions, still holding strong against the rising tide of modernism. Kobe was a lovely sneak peek into a modern port city, the gateway to cosmopolitanism in Japan, and an inspiration for revival, after the city's near annihilation of a major part in the 1995 earthquake. Himmeji  told us the story of how a city would be in Japan, that is out of focus compared to its more famous counterparts in the vicinity. And finally Osaka - the perfect "merchant" city, bustling with dazzling shopping districts and armed with all the neoteric attractions, the Universal Studio, Osaka Aquarium and the Floating Garden Observatory - that transported us back to the now that we exist. And then we set for Tokyo. 

If the Kansai region had offered diverse experience in different cities, Edo Tokyo was a melange of  all those diversities and much more. A vanguard of progressiveness, symbolic in its ever-rising skyline, it is the most singular conflation of  ancient history and the au courant, but also the microcosm of the experience, that is, Japan. Any amount of research on things to do or see in Tokyo, will turn out to be woefully inadequate and extremely stressful. Realising that after a certain point, I just chucked the idea of cramping my head and imagination and decided to live it up as we go. 

DAY 1:
We arrived early on a Sunday morning in Tokyo at Shinjuku, only to realise that we were just too early to check-in to our service apartment, that we had rented for the week. Shinjuku is the most convenient and also the best place to put up when in Tokyo, though the prices might be on a steeper side. But that's the price you pay for being in the heart of the city. It is most convenient to commute across the city from this juncture. So, at 6:30 am we plodded with our luggage to a just opened-Tully's (thankfully) for a hot cuppa and some sandwiches and greet Tokyo as it leisurely woke up from its Saturday night hangover. 

A Sunday morning in Tokyo - and you should plan it so that you have one to spare in the city - means heading to Harajuku to hobnob with the city's hip and the happening and witness the bizarre and eccentric street fashion made famous worldwide by the likes of Gwen Stefani and Lady Gaga.

 What begun with a curiosity of the Japanese youngsters for western culture and clothing, who hunted the place - which was a US military barrack post WWII - for the shops catering to the foreigners, slowly transformed into the mecca of fashion votaries, who pay homage every Sunday to all that is outre, avant-garde, edgy, and even at times revolutionary in fashion. In fact, Harajuku has surpassed its geographical identity now, to become synonymous with a trend, a culture and a concept. As we stroll down from Harajuku station to Takeshita Dori, we get zapped by the lolitas, the draculas and vampires, cutesy anime characters, barbie dolls and punks, goths, and rockers - all young Japanese teenagers engaging in cosplay. 

These youngsters congregate here every Sunday, to let their imagination run free and dress up as characters they want to be. Harajuku on a Sunday is indeed the most eclectic confluence of cultures that one might come across anywhere. The place is also famous for its quirky fashion shops and boutiques, and the lanes deeper into the Takeshita Dori becomes a treasure trove for anyone who is on a look-out for interesting fashion knick-knacks and I couldn't help being sucked into the lanes and bylanes, until I called it quits and sealed it with the awesome crepe, which is a must must try at Takeshita Dori. They are usually rolled with an assortment of fillings of your choice. For me it was a double chocolate cake, vanilla ice-cream with dollops of cream...yummm. 

We then headed for the madness that is, the Shibuya crossing. In fact, we did not realise where we were headed, since we were almost seemingly guided by the sea of people towards it from Takeshita Dori, and we had decided to just  go with the flow. 

Locating the statue of the loyal Hachiko standing vigilant, from afar, I figured out we were approaching the most iconic landmark of Tokyo - the busiest cross-walk in the world. According to the legend, Hachiko, a friendly Akita dog,  trotted every day to the Shibuya Station to greet his master and walk back home with him. One day the master did not return, as he suffered a hemorrhage at work and died. However, the loyal dog did not lose hope and continued to traverse the course for the next nine years expecting his master to return someday. The story now has a perfect literary ending in that Hachiko known for waiting for his master when alive, has now become the most iconic spot for Tokyoites to wait and meet up.

As the traffic lights turn red, the cross-walks are buried under an avalanche of footfalls and it is most amazing to be part of that mayhem. But what is even more unique is that despite the crazy crowd tumbling together into the zigzagging cross-walk, you would not collide, or be hit or pushed from behind or brushed from the side, or jostled to be overtaken. You would just cross peacefully, least realising the fact that you are part of the busiest cross-walk exercise. While participating is definitely recommended, one must not miss the view from atop - and the best place suggested by everybody and indeed so is from the second-floor Starbucks, across Shibuya Station.

The veritable mecca of high-end fashion with seductively-decked stores vying for attention from all corners, Shibuya is an interesting walk. While one road leads to quirky boutiques of Harajuku, another would transport you to the world of luxury shopping on the Omotesando street. Keeping the luxury for another day, when we returned to also check out the famous Aoyama structures, we headed for the most venerable shrine of Tokyo - Meiji Jingu Shrine - a Shinto shrine dedicated to the first emperor of modern Japan post the feudal era, Emperor Meiji, and his wife Empress Shoken. Just right across from all the delirium and assemblage, the imposing Tori gate of the shrine exported us immediately to a blissful retreat into the realms of serenity. 

An expansive forested area of nearly 100,000 trees, the stroll from the Tori gate at the entrance to the main shrine precincts is a perfect exercise in the cultivation of ataraxia. 

Interestingly, as we entered the main premise, we caught a wedding in progress - the demure bride and the nervous groom followed by a procession of friends and family, supposedly a very usual scene at the shrine, mainly on Sundays. 

From the enchanted walk at the Meiji Jingumae, we strolled into the adjacent Yoyogi park to treat ourselves to some Japanese street play, more of the genre of farce, 

and then meet the 'Greasers' who assemble there to shake a leg every Sunday. These rockabilly dancers are the dying breed of an underground Japanese group - takenoko zoku - that sprang up in the '80s. Leather jackets, pompadours, slicked black hair, weird-looking goth boots are their trademarks.

The sprawling park hosts families out on a Sunday picnic, lovers sharing sweet nothings, children playing and dogs trotting, tourists capturing a slice of Tokyo Sunday, and loners and travelers soaking in the leisured ambiance on a box of bento. We joined the last group and rambled on the lovely green bed until our bellies churned and we headed for some lipsmacking Japanese treat.

The evening was spent amidst the dazzling lights and frantic life of Shinjuku and its surrounding. One of the famous (or infamous) neighbourhoods of Shinjuku is Kabukicho, the fabled Sin city of Tokyo, the biggest adult entertainment district in Asia. Apparently, the area was completely destroyed in WWII, and during its reconstruction, plans were on the anvil to build a Kabuki theatre (the traditional Japanese theatre) for amusement. However, financial issues and other impediments ensured the plan to never see the light of day, but the name stuck to the place as Kabuki-cho. It is easy to identify the neighbourhood by its ever thinning lanes and bylanes and the garish neon lights of pachinko parlours, karaoke bars, hostess clubs, sleazy establishments and 'love hotels'. It was interesting to walk through the dazzling lights of shadiness and peep through the windows.

After a hectic day for our senses, not to mention the feet, we finally decided to call it quits, sealing with an Italian-Indian fusion food. Keep guessing how would that be!!

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